Poetry Sunday: “Patois,” by Lisa Allen Ortiz

Guest Column by Susan Cohen

To a poet, more than any other writer, language is about possibility—about rubbing words together to see what ignites a fire in the brain. I love many sorts of poetry, including narrative, but the poems that typically excite me most take risks with language.

Lisa Allen Ortiz flirts with wildness, both in her own writing and the work she translates. We became friends at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, and frequently exchange prompts. For those interested in where a poem comes from, “Patois” emerged from my prompt to “Write a poem about waiting for something or someone, either now or in the past. Ask the question ‘What did I know about X?’ and use this word list: dove, sulfur, foil, musk, complicate, shed, chasten, needy, alien, ajar, electric, languid.” Ortiz assures me that all dozen words made it into the first draft, though only “ajar” survived. As she puts it, perhaps to spare my feelings: “Poems are made of words, but they make their own shape out of those words.” See what I mean about wildness?

Ortiz typically writes free verse, but in “Patois,” she combines a received form, the sonnet, with imagery that is semi-surreal, an intriguing sort of culture clash. The imposed form raises certain expectations of constraint, but the poet’s lyric imagination refuses to be tamed and immediately takes off in a strange direction, presenting an unidentified “she” whose words transform into birds. That first stanza contains a lot of information, and yet not enough to understand what is happening beyond the sense that “Patois” is an elegy. An unidentified “she” mourned and ranted about mass extinction, but may have also somehow lost the power of speech. The stanza is fiercely permeated with loss, and with mystery.

The title, “Patois,” which means a non-standard dialect or speech characteristic of a certain group of people, suggests the poem may be about language as well as made of it. And just as a patois is non-standard, Ortiz’s sonnet obeys some rules and not others. She chooses to retain the Shakespearean sonnet’s traditional three quatrains plus final couplet, and some full rhyme (uttered/stuttered) as well as copious assonance (grass/branches/cheerless ash) and alliteration (“She stuttered a string of starlings”), but follows no rhyming pattern. She generally employs iambs—that is, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one—especially at the end of lines, though not a strict beat count. As befitting birds, “Patois” is intensely musical.

The poem offers a series of revelations. This woman could identify birds, and probably reached old age, something we infer from her keeping an out-of-date guide filled with “antique precision” while other people adapted to the modern world (“By then we typed.”) With the entry of “we,” the second stanza begins to hint at how an increasingly fast-paced world perceived this woman. People might have found her quaint; perhaps they didn’t take her completely seriously—the third stanza tells us that after she “sighed a final pair of finches,” people merely “texted our regrets.” Indeed, they tossed bits of paper “toward her grave,” rather than into it, as if they might or might not have taken time to attend the funeral. And yet a sense of mourning infuses the “empty” air and “cheerless ash.” Literally, the sky after she dies holds nothing, not even birds.

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